The EU’s chief diplomat has urged Myanmar to make its progress towards democracy “irreversible” after meeting Aung San Suu Kyi amid Western efforts to bolster reforms in the former pariah state.
Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief, arrived in Myanmar on Saturday to open a “new chapter” of relations following an easing of long-running sanctions.
Her visit is the most prominent by the EU since a military government made way a year ago for a quasi-civilian rule with reform agenda that has surprised the world and convinced the bloc to suspend most of its punitive measures.
“The European Union welcomes the remarkable changes in Burma/Myanmar and has decided to open a new chapter in our relations,” Ashton said in a statement released late on Friday.
The suspension of punitive measures was intended to allow aid and investment to reward the government for what Ashton said were “remarkable” political and economic concessions, while reserving the right to re-impose the sanctions if the reform process stalls.
“Of course reforms need to continue – we need to see further progress,” she said.
“We are ready to assist with these efforts as well as with economic and social development. We will continue to support the democratic transition, including through electoral assistance and encourage trade and investment in the country.”
However, overshadowing the easing of sanction is a political stalemate centred on Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide in an April 1 by-election but has refused to take up its seats in parliament until a swearing-in oath is changed.
Criticisms and stalemate
The National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s refusal to take a vow to “safeguard” the constitution has been widely criticised and has created a stalemate between the NLD, the government and the parliament that European diplomats say no one wants, and no one quite knows how to resolve.
The impasse, rooted in the NLD’s plans to change the constitution to reduce the military’s guaranteed political stake, does not bode well for Western countries keen for political stability.
Ashton is expected to open an EU office in the commercial capital, Yangon, the bloc’s first diplomatic representation in a country the West shunned while under military rule for 49 years.
She will also go to the capital, Naypyitaw, to meet President Thein Sein and other moderates seen as drivers of the reforms, including Thura Shwe Mann, the influential lower house speaker, and Aung Min, the railway minister who has negotiated ceasefires with numerous ethnic rebel armies.
Ashton’s trip comes at a time when the EU is vying with Western powers to capture influence and strengthen commercial ties with Southeast Asia, a region with a combined economy of more than $2tn that plans to establish an EU- style economic community by 2015.
European firms now have the green light to compete with Asian companies for a share in the vast untapped natural resources of a country strategically located between China and India and a gateway to the fast growing economies of ASEAN.
While investment in the former British colony is still seen as risky, it is rich in oil, gas, teak and gemstones, with huge tourism potential and urgent needs for financial services, new roads, hotels and railways and a proper telecoms infrastructure.